August 21, 2014

Caps in Advance: Week 21

There are three games on tap for the Washington Capitals this week, but I can guarantee that this morning every member of the team is squarely focused on the trade deadline at 3 pm this afternoon.

With positive results on both ends of a back-to-back over the weekend, Washington positioned themselves as buyers on trade deadline, or at least not sellers.  General manager George McPhee is renowned for not showing his hand when it comes to trades, so expect some surprises today.

Around 20 games remain in the regular season, and the Southeast Division is going to be a three-team dogfight for the next five weeks.  The Capitals, Florida Panthers, and Winnipeg Jets all sit within three points of each other; as the league standings currently hold, the Division winner will be the 3rd seed in the playoffs, and the other two teams will be battling for the final spot in the Eastern Conference.  The teams sitting in 4th-7th have begun to separate from those in 8th on down.

Which members of the franchise will be around for the playoff push? Defenseman Roman Hamrlik has publicly indicated unhappiness with his current situation on Dale Hunter’s roster, and word around the league is that the veteran is being shopped heavily. Mike Knuble and Joel Ward have also been mentioned as trade bait, although mostly because of dissatisfaction with their play, while youngsters Cody Eakin, Dmitry Orlov, and John Carlson have also been batted around as possibly leaving Washington in return for a stay-at-home defenseman or two plus a second-line center and top-6 winger.  Alexander Semin will be the prize player on the Caps roster, thanks to his insane talent and expiring contract.

McPhee finds himself in a position with few tradeable assets and many needs, so the best move may be to stand pat at the deadline and hope that the recent addition of Mike Green, combined with a hopeful return by Nicklas Backstrom, is all the team needs to head to the postseason.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28th v. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 31-26-5, 67 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
New York Islanders: 26-28-8, 60 points, 5th in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 0-2-0

Few teams in the Eastern Conference are trade deadline sellers, but the Islanders are one of those teams.  His team eight points out of the final playoff spot with four other desperate teams (including Washington) between them and the postseason, New York general manager Garth Snow has probably been a popular man around the league for a couple weeks.

Not much has gone right this season for the Isles, who had high hopes with a strong core of young players under head coach Jack Capuano.  Center John Tavares, a Dale Hunter protege in London, has had an All-Star season with 25 goals and 36 assists while skating over 20 minutes a game, and as befitting a team captain, has made his linemates better as well: Matt Moulson (26 goals, 27 assists) and PA Parenteau (15 goals, 43 assists) are both having career years.

Unfortunately for the Isles, outside of their loaded first line, nothing is click on offense.  New York has the 27th ranked offense in the NHL, scoring just 2.27 goals a game, while their defense is 25th, allowing 2.92 goals/game.

All that said, the 13th place New York Islanders have had the Caps’ number this season, winning both prior meetings by margins of 5-3 and 3-0 against Tomas Vokoun.  Parenteau in particular has feasted against Washington, scoring 3 goals and 2 assists against the Caps in 2011-12.  With five points in his past three games (3 goals, 2 assists), Parenteau is on a hot streak and the Caps would be wise to keep an eye on him Tuesday…assuming the unrestricted free agent-to-be is still an Islander then.

FRIDAY, MARCH 2nd v. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: CSN-MA

Records:
Washington Capitals: 31-26-5, 67 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
New Jersey Devils: 35-22-4, 74 points, 4th in Atlantic Division, 6th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-0-2

New Jersey is responsible for a full one-third of Washington’s six losses in shootout or overtime this season.  The second time these teams met Washington blew a two-goal lead in the first period and lost 3-2 in the shootout, while in the most recent meeting they fell behind 3-0 after the second period before clawing back late in the third to force the shootout, from which the Devils again emerged victorious.

Ilya Kovalchuk, he of the 15 year, $100 million dollar contract, has been on an point-scoring tear. On Valentine’s Day the right winger earned a hat trick plus an assists, and has potted four helpers in the five games since then.  Meanwhile, left wing Zach Parise is an unrestricted free agent after this season and, as a result, a prime candidate for a deal.  New Jersey desperately wants to retain Parise’s services, but with the 27-year-old on pace for his fifth career season with at least 30 goals it will be tough for the Devils to afford a pay raise over the $6 million Parise made this season.

Goaltender Martin Brodeur, who took a beating in this space earlier in the season, has improved to a 2.57 GAA and .902 Save %, well below his career averages but nonetheless better than his horrid start.  Helping out the Devils’ netminding will be the addition of Marek Zidlicky, a steady defensive defenseman acquired by the team last week. Zidlicky isn’t much of a point-producer, but Kurtis Foster, the power play specialist who was the biggest piece going to the Minnesota Wild in return, has seriously underperformed in 2011-12; as a result, Zidlicky is an across-the-board upgrade.

SUNDAY, MARCH 4th v. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

7:00 pm, Verizon Center
TV: NBC Sports Net

Records:
Washington Capitals: 31-26-5, 67 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 9th in Eastern Conference
Philadelphia Flyers: 34-20-7, 75 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division, 5th in Eastern Conference
Season Series: 1-1-0

Speaking of bulking up on the back end, Philadelphia kicked off the lead-off to the trade deadline with a pair of deal two weeks ago, picking up defensemen Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossman for picks and prospects.  With the addition of Kubina and Grossman, Philadelphia’s backline is again one of the strongest in the Eastern Conference (although they still can’t make up for the loss of perennial All-Star Chris Pronger for the season).

Philly needs to shore up its defense because goalies Ilya Bryzgalov (2.82 GAA, .898 Save %, 2 shutouts) and Sergei Bobrovsky (2.99 GAA, .900 Save %) have been sorely disappointing this season.  Bobrovsky at least has a pass as a 23-year-old playing in his second NHL season, but Bryzgalov was brought to the City of Brotherly Love during the offseason on a pricey nine-year contract specifically to settle Philly’s long-tumultuous netminding situation.  Bryzgalov’s struggles were evident on Saturday evening against the Calgary Flames. He earned the win, but allowed four goals on just 21 shots; if not for the Flyers’ league-leading 3.30 goals/game, the team would be fighting for a playoff berth rather than sitting in relative comfort in the 5-spot in the East.

Offense has been provided in spaces by affable forward Scott Hartnell, who leads the team (and is tied for 4th in the NHL) with 30 goals.   Often teams have enforcers on their rosters to protect the skill players, but that’s not a concern for Philadelphia: Hartnell also sits 11th in the league with 109 penalty minutes, the only player to top 30 and 100 so far this year, although New Jersey’s David Clarkson (24 goals, 97 PIM) and Boston’s Milan Lucic (21 goals, 111 PIM) have shots to join Hartnell by the end of the season.

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